Senate Judiciary Committee chair says it wasn't possible to accommodate the White House desire for a vote by yearend.
WASHINGTON – The Republican-controlled Senate will begin hearings Jan. 9 on Judge Samuel Alito’s appointment to the Supreme Court, leaders of the Judiciary Committee announced today, a bipartisan repudiation of President Bush’s call for a final confirmation vote before year’s end.
“It simply wasn’t possible to accommodate the schedule that the White House wanted,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He outlined a timetable that envisions five days of hearings, followed by a vote in committee on Jan. 17 and the full Senate on Jan. 20.
“It’s far more important to do it right than fast,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the panel. “In this case, I suspect we’re doing both.”
The White House had no immediate reaction.
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There was no evidence that the scheduling decision signaled any deeper dissatisfaction with the nomination on the part of Republicans. “I think Judge Alito has made a very good first impression,” said Specter.
Bush nominated Alito on Monday to fill the seat of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has often held the swing vote on cases involving controversial issues such as abortion and affirmative action.
Already, some Democrats have raised the possibility of a filibuster — an attempt to prevent final action on the nomination — and Leahy stopped short of committing to a vote in the full Senate on Jan. 20.
Specter said that “lurking below the surface is a concern for a filibuster” and said pushing the start of hearings to January “takes away a principal argument for those who would say the Senate is rushing.”
The Pennsylvania Republican announced the date for hearings as Alito, a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, courted support in assembly-line fashion, using a room off the Senate floor as an impromptu office while lawmakers rotated through.
Conservatives eager to replace O’Connor and push the court to the right have swung behind Alito’s nomination, and in making the appointment the president urged the Senate to vote this year.
Democrats, citing a need to review the voluminous record that Alito has compiled in 15 years as a judge, favored waiting until the new year to start the hearings. The 55-year-old judge has written an estimated 300 rulings and participated in roughly 1,500 cases.
At the news conference, Leahy took several slaps at the White House for seeking to pressure lawmakers.
“We are grown-ups, and we know how to get this done,” he said.
Apart from the legal rulings to be reviewed, the National Archives issued a statement saying its staff would need several weeks to complete a search of Justice Department records for any material pertaining to Alito. The agency also is seeking documents at the Ronald Reagan and George Bush presidential libraries that might shed light on Alito’s actions or views, the statement said.
Alito worked in both administrations and was a federal prosecutor in his home state of New Jersey before his confirmation as an appeals court judge.
Since Monday, Alito has met with more than a dozen senators in courtesy calls, a time-honored process that involves having the nominee walk from one office to another.
With lawmakers involved in a daylong series of votes that kept them in the Capitol, Alito was ushered into a room a few paces off the Senate floor so senators — Cornyn, Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Robert Bennett, R-Utah — could be brought to him.
A fourth Republican, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, talked with Alito on the steps outside the Capitol. A supporter of abortion rights, Chafee said he raised the issue with the nominee in their brief meeting. “We were able to have a candid conversation that I prefer to keep confidential,” he said.
Like other senators, Chafee said he was withholding his judgment about the nomination until after the hearings. “As a horseman, I know the first step when you meet a horse is to take it easy, take it slow,” he said.
Specter was caught between conflicting pressures as he sought to work out a schedule on the nomination. While the president made his wishes clear, Democrat Leahy of Vermont said this week it was not possible to hold honest or fair hearings before the new year.
Republicans have the ability to schedule hearings as they wish, but Democrats have procedural rights under Senate rules that could prolong the hearings, delay sending the nomination to the floor or otherwise complicate the administration’s desire for a smooth confirmation.
Additionally, some Republicans noted that a vote in January — before Bush’s State of the Union address — could allow him to claim an early political success in the new year. They also said it could be politically risky to have Alito testify in December, then allow several weeks to elapse before a vote by the full Senate. That would allow liberal critics to mount a nationwide campaign for his rejection.